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Relationships: The Trap of Responsibility

By Dr. Margaret Paul
October 28, 2018

Do you feel trapped in relationships, feeling responsible for others? Do you end up shutting down and withdrawing?

Fear of IntimacyCaleb consulted with me because he was feeling very withdrawn from his girlfriend, Ella. Now in his middle 50s, he had been in and out of relationships for years, always running away when he felt a certain shut-down feeling.

"I don't want to run away again. I'm tired of running and I don't want to hurt Ella, but I can hardly look at her right now and I don't feel anything for her. I don't want to be around her."

Caleb told me that when they were out to dinner, Ella had said something that sounded derogatory to him and he commented to her about it. She became very upset with herself and started to cry. From this point on, Caleb felt withdrawn, and he wanted to understand what got triggered in him.


Exploring the Cause of his Withdrawal…

Caleb came from a childhood where his mother was very needy and was often an emotional wreck. Caleb had always tried to take responsibility for his mother's feelings so that she would take responsibility for him. The moment his mother would cry, Caleb would feel afraid that she wasn’t there for him, and at the same time felt pulled on and trapped by her neediness.

As an adult, he fell into the same pattern in his relationships. He tells himself that he is responsible for Ella's feelings, in order to feel in control of getting her to make him feel safe. Any time she is upset, he withdraws. He projects onto her the responsibility for making him feel safe - which is self-abandonment. The moment he tells himself that he is responsible for her, and makes her responsible for him, he believes that she is the source of danger - when actually his self-abandonment is causing the feeling of danger. It’s a vicious cycle.


He Traps Himself

Once he projects onto her that she is the source of the danger - that she is the one controlling him - he then withdraws, not realizing that he has trapped himself by telling himself that he is responsible for her feelings so that she will take responsibility for his feelings.

This is the trap of taking responsibility for others and for making others responsible for you. The moment you do this, you have abandoned yourself, which makes you feel very unsafe. You feel engulfed the moment the other person is upset, which makes it impossible for you to be truly caring about the other person. We cannot be caring when we are busy taking responsibility for another, so that they will take responsibility for us.


The Way Out

The way out of this trap is to move into the truth – to realize that your intent is to have control over making the other person love you because you are not loving yourself. The way out is to get that you are creating your own feelings of engulfment by taking responsibility for another’s feelings rather than your own.

Others cannot make you feel trapped and engulfed. You do this all by yourself, by telling yourself the lie that you are responsible for others' feelings and they are responsible for yours. You trap yourself when you abandon yourself by not taking responsibility for the thoughts and actions that are making you feel engulfed.

The moment you fully accept responsibility for your own feelings and let go of responsibility for others' feelings, you are free from both the fear of rejection and the fear of engulfment. You are free to care about others and truly share love.

Caleb was ready to hear this. He was ready to let go of responsibility for Ella and take responsibility for himself, and as he practiced doing this, using the Six Steps of Inner Bonding, his feelings of love for Ella came back.

Heal your relationship with Dr. Margaret Paul’s Intimate Relationship Toolbox, a 12-week online course.


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